From High Heels to Flip Flops

Written by: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

When I told my parents that I was going to “take a break from my career” to start a non-profit, there was mad chaos in the house.

“How will you survive without a job?” they questioned. “I’ll use my savings,” I replied.

“How long will you be away?” they asked. “About a year.”

Even my college thesis advisor, a professor of human geography and a theorist on poverty, whose teachings has influenced my approach with the Malini Foundation, expressed concerns. If he’s “nervous for me,” as he put it, I probably should think twice about this decision.

However, when I told my colleagues at work of my unorthodox plan most of them responded saying, “I’ve always wanted to do [fill in the blank] but never got around to it.”

With that I said to myself (yes, sometimes I do that):

“You live one life, so don’t let your passion fall through your fingers!”

But, I thought, I’m going to give this one shot and that shot better kick ass because if I don’t succeed in one year, I’m not trying again.

Rather than studying up on traditional non-profit management, in which I have no experience, I decided to tackle this like a consulting project, which would make it far less intimidating to me.

At the Malini Foundation, we would think like a business, with your products being our programs on girls’ education and women’s livelihoods. Our approach would be evidence-based with strategic decision-making processes.

One of my mentors and now board members told me: “Like restaurants, many small non-profits fail due to a lack of funding.” So sustainability would be critical. Our operations should be lean, environmentally conscious and bring in some revenue so we can be self-sufficient (hence the dual-purpose of the women’s livelihood program).

I also feel strongly about the effective use of public donations (when we get them!) 100% will be committed to our on-the-ground programs. To do this and be a successful organization, we would need a strong partnership model and pro bono program.

A part of our mission is to encourage better international relations between the U.S. and developing countries. What better way to do that than by engaging college students who could also help with our research and administrative needs?

I reached out to the student programs coordinator at my alma mater, Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College. I shared my plans for the Malini Foundation and for what’s today our Global Fellowship Program. Incredibly, she remembered that I had expressed my interest in such a project 10 years ago while reporting to her as a scholar assistant. Before we know it, our first partnership was formed!

With our Global Fellowship Program we provide internship, applied-research and consulting opportunities to Schreyer scholars. We work with students from non-technical majors with a passion for humanitarian causes and instill vital analytical problem solving skills.


I continued to travel and work on my last client project but with the support of our interns and a few dedicated volunteers we were able to get a lot of foundational planning completed. Our strategic plan included a situational analysis of potential regions to start our project, an evaluation of similar leading practice organizations, a financial pro forma, an accountability-based governance model and a partnership assessment. We even held our first advocacy event showing the inspirational film Girl Rising on International Day of the Girl.

In the meantime, we were accepted as a Development Partner with Advocates for International Development and they connected us to the law firm Mayer Brown. They helped us apply for 501(c)(3) status and developed several policies including our code of ethics.


It was a hectic six months trying to balance my real job and working late into the evenings on the Malini Foundation but I felt less nervous knowing that we were starting on solid ground.

On my last day at work, I was running through the airport to catch my flight back home. I all but twisted my ankle as the heel of my black pumps broke off. I pulled out my flip flops and rushed to the gate. As I hastily settled into my seat I realized that literally and figuratively I had traded in my Cole Haans for a pair of Havanas. This has to be a good sign for a new beginning!

For more on the Malini Foundation, read Valerie’s previous blog post on Girls’ Globe

Introducing the Malini Foundation

By: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

I don’t think that my story is a unique one for a career professional but I may have somewhat of a different ending. My name is Valerie Handunge and I’m a management consultant – or at least I used to be until three months ago. I was at a top firm, traveled weekly to exciting cities and worked on intellectually challenging strategic projects with incredibly bright colleagues. I loved most aspects about my work but deep down I felt like something was missing. I craved meaning beyond career growth.

I thought about the path I was on and saw myself in 10 years and then again in 20 years and while I’m sure I would have moved slowly but surely up the corporate ladder, it didn’t appear that I was happy or fulfilled.

So after much thought, I made a drastic decision to quit my job to pursue an initiative that I have been passionate about for more than half my life – to foster girls’ education and women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka.

Being originally from Sri Lanka and growing up in the Middle East, it was not uncommon to hear “girls don’t, can’t or shouldn’t do this, that or the other” from teachers, friends and other role models. However, my grandmother, who was married at the tender age of 17 or 18 through an arranged marriage, was generations beyond her time. She was a strong and jovial woman, who had learned many lessons throughout her life. She encouraged my curiosity and somewhat unorthodox independence, saying,

“Girls can do anything that boys can do.”
Valerie & her Grandmother
Valerie as a child & her Grandmother

In mid-2013 I decided to start the Malini Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise, named after my grandmother as she embodied the spirit of the type of organization I wanted to create.

Our mission is to advance the interests of girls and women in Sri Lanka to help them unleash their potential and transform their lives through quality education, empowerment and by bringing their voices to the international community.

Our goal is to implement three programs in the next two years:

1) A unique model to serve talented and gifted orphaned girls

2) Community outreach programs that engage and empower local women leaders to address issues surrounding girls’ education, child marriage, child domestic labor, sexual abuse/ incest etc. and

3) A women’s livelihood program that also serves as a self-sustainability effort for the organization, where profits made will be used to run and grow our programs.

All this sounds great in theory! Yet, implementation has presented its own set of anticipated and unforeseen challenges. From the complexities of attaining the appropriate provincial legal approvals to the occasional self-doubt that arises, there are many bumps on the road.

In fact, just a few days ago I woke up and realized that it has been three months to the date that I had stopped working. I couldn’t help but calculate the salary that I would have made and the many comforts that I took for granted that I no longer have.

Yet, I thought, I go to bed at night excited, with a sense of purpose, peace and satisfaction that I’ve taken this leap of faith to work towards a childhood dream that could yield incomparable rewards to what I’ve left behind.

Please join me on this incredibly humbling and gratifying journey as I document it on Girls’ Globe.

Twitter: @Malini_Fdn